I was walking through a nearby neighborhood the other day while replaying a conversation with a friend from the previous week in my head. Don’t we all do that—replay conversations and come up with better or snarkier responses than the ones we had used in the moment? Well, I do.
Anyway, I stewed on our collective words for the better part of an hour. The stark contrast between how we both thought about and engaged with the theology of freedom in Christ had me stumped. The longer I walked and thought, the more perplexed I grew. Am I wrong? I turned the corner (literally—I turned left) and ran into this statue. If my feelings could have been outside of my body—they would have been this gargoyle.
My friend and I had been discussing spiritual transformation—not like going from lost to found (though that is worthy of a conversation), but the slow, gradual change that occurs over the course of your life. As we study Jesus’s life through the reading of scripture and as we encounter and experience Jesus through various other means, we will be changed. If we are encountering Jesus with any sort of regularity, we will be different people in a year, five years, ten years than we are right now. If we aren’t, it’s safe to say something is off and that something is usually us.
Back to our conversation—it started out good. We talked about the importance of living our lives as an act of worship with God being both source and sole-recipient of our praise and all the ways we demonstrate that truth in our daily lives. As our conversation progressed, it took some interesting turns, as conversations often do. We had others listening to us and I was keenly aware of their presence. Other topics came up—a variety of political views on several global issues, perspectives on race and gender, civil rights versus Christian responsibility, etc.
Then we starting discussing whether or not some things were permissible in our lives as followers of Jesus. Whenever a conversation with a fellow Jesus follower lingers too long in the land of behavioral dos and don’ts, my tendency is to try and move us through those things quickly. There are God-honoring people who do things I would never do and condemn things that are part of my daily life.
I think it’s actually pretty great—as Jesus followers we don’t all look the same. There is diversity in how we show up in the world, but the most important truths bind us together and set us apart from the rest of the world. The denomination I currently belong to sums up my perspective fairly well: In essentials—unity. In non-essentials—liberty. In all things—charity. Essentially, in some things, we will all agree. In other things, we will agree to disagree. In all things, we will have compassion toward one another.
Back to our conversation. We were really getting into the weeds and I was beginning to feel uneasy. The conversation felt less like a dialogue and it seemed to transition into a battle of wills. Grace and compassion slowly fizzled away and our human instinct to win began to surface. What began as a thoughtful dialogue had slowly turned into a very difficult encounter and don’t forget—people were listening. Somehow in my mind, let’s call it a Jesus nudge, I realized that how I responded in this moment mattered.
Now, if you know me at all, or even if you only read the About Kristen page on my website, you might know I don’t shy away from difficult conversations. Healthy conflict sharpens us—and softens us. It’s the way I’ve learned to work through difficult things and remain in relationship with people I love. Last year was like healthy conflict immersion school for me—sometimes I did well and sometimes I sucked. That said, I have learned to set healthy boundaries for my own mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. This encounter encroached on these boundaries and for my own safety I had to tap out after a certain point.
As I reflected back on it, the aspect of our interaction which bothered me the most was not that we disagreed about things, but it was that we never reached a point where we could agree to disagree. It was so uncomfortable to be in a space where there was literally no room for an alternative thought or practice. The more I pondered it, I realized I was so uncomfortable because I recognized in that space, there was really no room for me.
Jesus made space for others. In essentials, he gently brought people around and repeated the truth in various contexts using a wide range of examples, but he never cut people off. Jesus taught difficult truths about the kingdom of God with his words and his life—he encountered people’s sin from a place of compassion and love. Even up to the night before his death, there was space for Judas.
All of us have things in our lives we should revisit regularly: screen time, entertainment, exercise, traditions, cultural practices, etc. The purpose of revisiting them is not to condemn ourselves, rather it’s to consider whether this thing (this practice, or habit, or recreation, etc.) is interfering with our ability to connect with Jesus. Another way of thinking about it might be to ask the question, “If I continue doing this thing, will I be a different person in a year, five years, ten years from now in the ways that matter, or is this thing inhibiting my spiritual growth?”
Sometimes as we examine things in our own lives, Jesus bumps into us. One of my favorite examples of Jesus bumping up against us is the story from the gospel of Luke (Luke 13:10-17). Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath (a day set aside for rest) and notices a woman afflicted by a disabling spirit. Jesus heals her and the woman glorifies God because of her healing, but the religious leader present is indignant and says, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, not on the Sabbath day.”
Before we get all huffy at the religious leader, let’s think about his reaction for a moment. He was taught to rest from work on the Sabbath, just as God did in the story of the creation of the world. As a religious leader, healing might have fallen in the work category and therefore it is off-limits. So there’s Jesus, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath, performing work, in front of all of these other people. You might say that Jesus’s actions were in direct conflict with the commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy and it was also a slap in the face to the daily work of this religious leader. Jesus bumped into the leader’s understanding of right and wrong.
The concept of resting on the Sabbath was not in question, but the manner in which the religious leader carried out the concept is questionable. Jesus picks up on that and responds, “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”
Yes—we are commanded to set aside a day of rest in order to connect with God and with those around us in celebration and gratitude. No, it should not be at the expense or to the harm of ourselves or others. Jesus is not condemning rest or abstaining from work. He is pointing out the motivation and heart posture of the religious leader. He might have healed that woman on any non-Sabbath day during the eighteen years prior—but he hadn’t and that fact was made obvious by Jesus’s choice to step outside of the religious norm and heal this woman on the Sabbath.
As a result of this healing, the woman and those who witnessed it gave glory to God. The act of healing demonstrated the compassionate nature of God and it created a pathway for Jesus and others to connect with God and offer praise. It also showed us that sometimes, our traditions, habits, and practices actually disconnect us from God, rather than connect us with God. Does that mean we stop resting on the Sabbath? No. It means that we need to regularly examine our thoughts, actions, and intentions to understand why we engage with something.
Okay so back to the conversation—seriously, how many times am I gonna say that!? Maybe you’ve had a tough encounter like that before and felt pushed away. Maybe, like me, you’ve been the inflexible and unyielding one—the one who, like the religious leader in Luke 14 is bound by a law which was actually intended to free us.
I think the point is this: depending on where you’re at in your faith, whether you’re brand new to following Jesus or you’ve been walking with him for decades, you might feel freedom to engage in certain activities or practices because doing so doesn’t hinder your connection with God. Depending on where you’re at in your faith, you might actually consider setting something down because you believe it is creating a barrier to connecting with God, or it is distracting you from God. You might even be somewhere in the middle—wherever you are, there is space for you.
This is not to say I believe anything and everything goes. No, friends. There are some things that should go—things that harm us, harm others, or harm our witness. What I am saying is let’s be mindful and pay attention. Let’s pay attention to the ways in which we are changing over time. Let’s pay attention to the things we engage in and notice whether Jesus bumps into us or whether he offers us a fist bump.
Lastly, when we find ourselves in tough conversations with fellow believers or non-believers, let’s remember that Jesus loves them too. He knows their heart just as he knows yours. Let’s lean into tough conversations and endeavor to love them despite our differences. Be mindful of who else may be listening—create space for them too. Iron does sharpen iron and there is a place for that, but let the Holy Spirit also soften our hearts and minds so that we might grow in our compassion and humility—and our ability to agree to disagree.
What are some things you have felt freedom to agree to disagree about? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.